DJ Augustin is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career. Since joining Chicago he’s posted 14.0 points per game on 43% shooting and 41.9% three point shooting, 5.9 assists per game, and a 17.3 PER- all numbers that are in line with or better than his career highs. At this point he’s earned Tom Thibodeau’s trust- evident through a boost in playing time over the past 12 games- and has rewarded Thibodeau with 18.9 ppg on 45.8% shooting (47.3% three point shooting) and 6.3 apg.
It’s stunning that a guy who was discarded by the Charlotte Bobcats, is playing on his fourth team in three years, and gives us gems like…
…is having a career year and helping Chicago keep their season afloat in the process. Though as amazing as it is we shouldn’t be shocked by Augustin’s resurgence because it’s the same old story playing out for the third year in a row. Once again a third string point guard (or would be third string if Derrick Rose were healthy) is having one of the best seasons of his career under Thibodeau. It happened before with John Lucas III and Nate Robinson (and arguably Derrick Rose if you want to lump in his jump to MVP-level play in 2010), and now it’s happening with Augustin. But what is going on in Chicago for this trend to keep repeating itself?
The first possible explanation is that Thibodeau is some kind of evil wizard using magic to make all of the guards good.
But that’s obviously not it (despite how fitting the image is). The simple, obvious, and more boring answer is that Thibodeau has developed a system and offensive game plan that makes him a point guard whisperer of sorts. Just like with any other system, a guard’s success in the offense is dependent on multiple facets; however, there tends to be one aspect of the offense that acts as the backbone for everything. In Chicago’s case that’s lateral ball movement.
Chicago’s side-to-side ball movement around the perimeter serves to create offensive opportunities for a team composed of players who struggle to generate their own shot. By moving the ball around, the Bulls force defenses off balance by making them constantly shift their positioning. When used in conjunction with on and off ball screens this forces defensive breakdowns for Chicago to exploit, primarily pick-and-roll driving lanes for the guard, spot up shots, and lanes for players to cut into (12.6%, 17.5%, and 11.4% of plays, respectfully according to Synergy Sports).
A simple sight test is enough to see that Thibodeau’s system has been and is heavily point guard dominated. Calculations made from SportsVu Player Tracking and the NBA’s statistics page supports this notion. On any given possession this season the point guards control the ball for an average of 6.2 seconds whereas everyone else who plays 20+ minutes/game only has the ball for roughly 1.3 seconds. Because the guards dominate the ball, they’re involved in a significant number of Chicago’s most run types of scoring plays (listed above), which partially explains why guards increase their scoring and assist numbers under Thibodeau.
While Chicago’s offense stems from the lateral passes, the importance of the bigs within the system can’t be understated. According to Synergy Sports, 26.2% of all of Chicago’s scoring opportunities are generated by some sort of screen. Without effective play from the bigs Chicago’s offense would become stagnant and the team’s efficiency and effectiveness would drop. Significant credit for the offense’s and point guards’ success should be given to Joakim Noah, the primary screen setter. According to a study by Vantage Sports, Noah is one of the league’s best at setting screens based on the numbers of “solid screens set” and positive offensive opportunities his screens create. With Noah on the floor, the guards also see a general bump in their shooting in the paint and restricted area.
While there are some added complexities to Thibodeau’s system, the underlying basis of it all is relatively simple and straightforward. So why haven’t the guards outside of the four aforementioned player succeeded? Ultimately it boils down to the fact that the system requires a specific kind of player- one who can generate their own offense, is fast, has a high IQ, and is good running the pick and roll.
Of all the point guards who have played in Chicago over the past three and a half years, only Rose, Robinson and Augustin fit all of these criterion based on the simple “eye test” and draft profiles found on Draft Express. It should be noted that there is no profile for Lucas III. Kirk Hinrich also doesn’t have a draft profile though it’s safe to assume his inability to thrive the way others have is due to him slowing down and becoming a worse shooter with age. All of the other point guards were missing one or more of the general characteristics.
Given that Chicago is likely to once again be financially strapped this offseason, it seems that DJ Augustin is quickly playing his way out of Chicago like Lucas III and Robinson did before him. However, it remains to be seen if teams will want to take a chance on offering a multi-year, multimillion dollar contract to Augustin. While he’s enjoyed a resurgence, teams are likely wary that the production is more so a result of Thibodeau’s system rather than what Augustin can do for any team. After all, both Lucas III and Robinson have seen their production regress to their pre-Bulls day following their breakout year in Chicago. Regardless of what happens, though, Bulls fans can take solace in knowing Thibodeau is their coach and that with him on the sidelines, the backup point guard position is almost guaranteed to be set.
Editors Note: Thank you to Randall J Sanders (@RandallJSanders) for taking the time to produce the lovely photoshops for this piece. Also thank you to Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ), Andrew Lynch (@AndrewLynch), and Jacob Frankel (@Jacob_Frankel) for helping me gather and make sense of some of the statistics used in the post.